It may seem trite to debate the importance of likability in a presidential campaign. But in the matchup between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, how well or poorly the candidates connect with voters could determine who occupies the White House for the next four years.
Conventional wisdom says the state of the economy and unemployment above 8 percent will decide the outcome of the election. Yet another lousy report on housing values or job creation presumably will ensure defeat for the incumbent.
Pocketbook issues trump personality, right? Perhaps. But perception colors everything. In a presidential contest as close as this one, the candidate perceived to be more likable may be more electable.
"All else being equal, many voters would rather vote for someone they like than someone they don't like," emailed John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "But all things are rarely equal."
Clearly, President Obama's Achilles' heel is the anemic recovery. It's hard to spin success out of sluggishness.
Voters are divided nearly evenly about who would do better on economic issues, but Mr. Romney is betting his business background will tip the scales toward him. He's confident that financially pinched voters won't care whether he's personally popular.
Yet even with his casual dress, the billionaire venture capitalist always has had difficulty relating to ordinary people with ordinary worries about food, shelter, jobs, and education. They get that he's never been there, done that.
His quips about his wife's Cadillacs or hobnobbing with NASCAR owners reinforce what voters instinctively sense about a man born and bred to privilege, who got richer buying and selling companies.
A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll recently asked voters in three critical swing states about Mr. Romney's business experience. Those surveyed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida were more apt to say that his experience was too focused on making profits rather than creating jobs.
According to the poll, those most likely to vote in all three states viewed President Obama as more caring about their needs and problems than his opponent.
"The economy is hurting the President's job approval, but he is still well-liked personally," Mr. Green said. By contrast, the former Massachusetts governor and Michigan native "is not especially well-known, but he has had a hard time connecting with voters."
"His wealth may be a factor, but also he has had some trouble talking about his [Mormon] faith," Mr. Green said. As long as Mr. Romney allows his competition to define him as secretive, elusive, and out of touch, his favorability rating will trail the President's.
That matters in a race too close to call. Despite dismal economic numbers, poor approval ratings, and poll findings that show voters are slightly more likely to predict that the President's economic policies would hurt their personal finances more than Mr. Romney's, Mr. Obama's likeability gives him an edge.
The latest survey also indicates Mr. Obama's supporters are more likely to strongly favor him in the three targeted states.
Mr. Romney's support appears more likely to come from people who say they dislike the President far more than they like his opponent. Will their lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Romney curb their motivation to vote for a gaffe-prone candidate who is suspected of hiding something about his income and taxes during his years at Bain Capital?
Enjoying an advantage on the campaign's dominant issue may not be sufficient to get elected. A risk-averse strategy of scripted platitudes, shifting positions, and banal bashing of the Affordable Care Act, derided as "Obamacare," may not be enough to inspire a weary electorate.
Mr. Green agrees it would help the Republicans' cause if Mr. Romney could connect more effectively with people. "A key is for the candidate to be both comfortable with himself and with voters," he said.
Connecting takes a lot of work and practice. "But the potential for change lies with Romney," Mr. Green added. "As he becomes better known, it is also possible that he will become better liked."
Plenty can happen in the next few weeks as course corrections, national conventions, and televised debates conspire to make all the difference. The election is coming, like it or not.
Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.
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